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The Studio Experience: Representing Identity through Portraiture

The Studio Experience:  Representing Identity through Portraiture

“Formerly the luxury of a likeness was the exclusive privilege of the rich and great; but now, like education and a thousand other blessings brought to us by the advancing march of light and civilization, such pictures are brought within the easy reach of the humblest members of society.”

Frederick Douglass

Age of Pictures

The invention of photography transformed print culture from an artist’s drawing etched on paper to a scientific method that uses a chemical process to fix an image on a surface.  The earliest example of photography is the daguerreotype, a photograph printed with light-sensitive emulsion on polished silver-plated copper.  This photographic process created a stunning portrait but was expensive to produce.  The cost to develop a daguerreotype made photography an exclusive experience only for those who could afford it.  Although the invention of the ambrotype and the tintype reduced the price of commissioning a portrait, the photograph was still considered a keepsake for personal use.


The invention of carte de visite photographs changed the culture of participating in photography. The carte de visite, otherwise known as CdV, used the albumen printing process on small paper cards, which made them more affordable to produce.

David V. Tinder Collection.

Carte de Visite of Man with Cane
Photographer:  William A. H. Lewis, 1860?

The low cost of creating photographs made photography more accessible to the general public and a profitable business. Money was no longer a factor in commissioning your portrait.

Clements Library.

Portrait of Phygenau the Ballerina
Photographer: Dante Studio, 1920?

It also created an additional social aspect to collecting photography. A person could sit and purchase multiple copies to share and exchange with family, friends, or collect portraits of famous people.

David V. Tinder Collection.

Soloman Parker Harris, alumnus of the University of Michigan Law School
Photographer: Randall, Ann Arbor, Michigan  1891

Cabinet cards are a larger version of Carte de Visite photographs printed on thick stock paper and cardboard. The denser cardstock created a more durable picture and allowed the photographer to print their logo on the front of the card to advertise their business.

David V. Tinder Collection.

Creativity in Self-Expression: Photography Studios in Michigan

The popularity of photography created a new form of self-expression within portraiture.  Individuals made purposeful choices in selecting their garments for a sitting while photographers designed elaborate backdrops to integrate a person into a scene.  This collaboration elevated African American imagery from stereotypical caricatures to authentic representations of people with style and personality.